Reddit's science section has banned climate change-denying trolls

One of the site's largest subreddits, r/science, has had enough of angry, conspiracy-spouting posters who do nothing but ruin legitimate debate.

Reddit’s science section - r/science - is one of the site’s default sections (or “subreddits” in the site’s parlance), and is one of the main places on the internet where experts and lay people can come together and chat about science. Its moderators, like the rest of those in charge of subreddits, have to juggle the site community’s strong belief in free speech with the need to prevent arguments, trolling, or anything else that could derail genuine scientific debate.

That’s why they’ve taken the step to ban “climate change deniers” from the subreddit. One of the moderators, chemist Nathan Allen, has written a blog post to explain why the decision was made (I’ve picked out the key paragraphs):

While evolution and vaccines do have their detractors, no topic consistently evokes such rude, uninformed, and outspoken opinions as climate change. Instead of the reasoned and civil conversations that arise in most threads, when it came to climate change the comment sections became a battleground.

...

After some time interacting with the regular denier posters, it became clear that they could not or would not improve their demeanor. These problematic users were not the common “internet trolls” looking to have a little fun upsetting people. Such users are practically the norm on reddit. These people were true believers, blind to the fact that their arguments were hopelessly flawed, the result of cherry-picked data and conspiratorial thinking.

...

We discovered that the disruptive faction that bombarded climate change posts was actually substantially smaller than it had seemed. Just a small handful of people ran all of the most offensive accounts. What looked like a substantial group of objective skeptics to the outside observer was actually just a few bitter and biased posters with more opinions then [sic] evidence.

Negating the ability of this misguided group to post to the forum quickly resulted in a change in the culture within the comments. Where once there were personal insults and bitter accusations, there is now discussion of the relevant aspects of the research.

I used to work as a barman in a pub with a semi-famous regular who obsessively tried to argue that renewable energy was a scam and nuclear power was a better option, and who would pick drunken arguments with other regulars about it just for the sake of it. It was very weird, and it made uncomfortable, so we barred them. This is a bit like that.

If you want to see an example of a good discussion about climate change, then head to the comments on r/science about this blog post. There’s a lot of discussion about whether this is a genuine pro-science move, whether it’s a suppression of genuine criticism, and what kinds of tone are acceptable when posting contrary opinions.

For example, there’s a small debate over the politicisation of the word “denier”, and how some who are sceptical of climate models feel they are equated with “holocaust deniers” for daring to speak out. It’s stupid, obviously, but the point is it’s a civil debate compared to what you might see elsewhere when it comes to climate change.

The final question that Allen poses, though, is an interesting one - why don’t newspapers ban people like this too? The scientific consensus that climate change is happening, and is driven by humans, is extremely comprehensive and compelling - but media outlets like the BBC tend to offer "balance" by giving fringe sceptics an equal platform.

r/science has roughly four million monthly unique visitors, which makes it roughly twice as popular a website as the New Statesman, and an influential scientific resource. Perhaps some editors could look to reddit's science moderators for inspiration.

A screenshot of r/science, today.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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25 years on, here are the worst ever predictions about the internet

Back in the Nineties, many experts didn't think the internet would live to see its first, let alone 25th, Internaut Day. 

On 27 February 1995, the American magazine Newsweek shared the truth about the internet.

"The truth in no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works," wrote Clifford Stoll, in a piece that has thankfully been preserved online for the ages. "How about electronic publishing? Try reading a book on disc," Stoll went on, "Yet Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, predicts that we'll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Intenet. Uh, sure."

17 years later, Newsweek ceased print publication and became exclusively available online.

On the 25th anniversary of the internet becoming publicly available, it is very easy to laugh at spectacularly wrong predictions like this one. In 2016, we use the web to find jobs and homes, shop for clothes, diagnose our illnesses, make friends, fall in love, and tell strangers that their opinions on the Labour party are wrong. In fact, the web is so pivotal to modern life that two months ago, the UN declared internet access a basic human right.

Still, Newsweek wasn’t alone in failing to understand the impact Berners-Lee’s world wide web would have on the wider world. Even the man himself, posting on a forum of early internet users in 1991, summarised the invention as, “[aiming] to allow information sharing within internationally dispersed teams, and the dissemination of information by support groups”.

“This summary does not describe the many exciting possibilities opened up by the WWW project, such as efficient document caching…” he continued, blissfully unaware of the forthcoming arrival of Nyan Cat.

In fact, its safe to say that a couple of decades ago, absolutely no one had any idea what we were getting ourselves in for. 

John Allen, on CBC, 1993:

"One would think that if you’re anonymous, you’d do anything you want, but groups have their own sense of community and what we can do."

Speaking to the Canadian television channel CBC in 1993, internet expert John Allen mused about civility and restraint on the internet (you can view the full clip here). Allen shared his belief that our internal rules and values would restrain us from saying and doing terrible things to one another over the world wide web.

Incidentally, an Australian study in March this year discovered that 76 per cent of women under 30 have experienced abuse or harassment online

Robert Metcalfe, in InfoWorld, 1995:

 "I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse."

Just five years in to the web's public availablity, Robert Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet, gave the whole thing a 12-month life expectancy. Still, he ate his words just two years later when, during the sixth International World Wide Web Conference in 1997, he blended a copy of his column with some water and then consumed the resultant smoothie with a spoon. 

Waring Partridge, in Wired, 1995:

"Most things that succeed don't require retraining 250 million people."

According to a report from the International Telecommunication Union, the number of internet users increased from 738m in 2000 to 3.2bn in 2015. Still, we're not sure you could describe them all as "trained".

Brian Carpenter, in the Associated Press, 1995:

"Tim Berners-Lee forgot to make an expiry date compulsory . . . any information can just be left and forgotten. It could stay on the network until it is five years out of date."

Anyone wary of outdated internet information has clearly not discovered the joy of the 1998 promotional website for the Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks rom-com You've Got Mail.

Tim Berners-Lee, in Information Week, 1995:

"I'm looking forward to the day when my daughter finds a rolled-up 1,000-pixel-by-1,000-pixel color screen in her cereal packet, with a magnetic back so it sticks to the fridge."

To be fair to Tim, the least likely element of this scenario is that Kellogg's will bring back free gifts, not that magical screen stickers won't become a thing.

To have fun searching through weird and wonderful predictions about the internet yourself, check out Elon University School of Communications' "Early 90s Predictions" database.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.